Sunday, 30 September 2012

Should I teach Year 11 boys love poetry? / Teaching girls to put makeup on properly

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a male English teacher in possession of free time at lunchtime, must be in want of male company.

I walked into the staffroom after a gruelling bout of teaching poetry to a class and made my way to the section of the room that had been secretly dedicated to the English staff. They were sat around chatting and eating salads or sipping vegetable soup and conversing about teaching, life and what was on telly last night. I should inform you that the group, at that time, was all women. Often, the conversation did get on to admiring what the other was wearing, but for the most, I was usually able to join in.

I sat amongst the crowd of eight English teachers (what is the collective noun for a group of teachers? A critique. A sarcasm. A kerfuffle.) and proceeded to eat my lunch. Oblivious to the conversation around me, I opened my sandwich bag and removed the sandwich, or, accurately, two full slices of bread with a slice of meat between them. I never cut my sandwiches up and this caused a number of frowns from some delicate ladies, insisting a sandwich must be cut and not left as a whole slice.

Munching away on my food, I could hear bits of the conversation around me.

“What is it with men? Huh. I mean, why do they like boobs and bums and legs?”

Keep eating your sandwich, I thought. There was no way I could escape this minefield of a conversation.

“Come on. It is silly isn’t it? Men are always going on about a woman’s boobs or her legs. Women don’t do, do they?” This was spoken by one of the younger females in the department. The rest of the baying crowd murmured in agreement like a parliamentary backbencher or nodded their head in agreement. They carried on. “What is it? Chris, what do you think?”

I froze. Shocked, stunned and petrified, I had no idea how to get out of this conversation. I was a twenty something that lacked the confidence that some of my age had. I looked down at the remains of my sandwich, thinking how I could escape the answer.

“Come on, Chris. What are you? A boobs man? Do you prefer legs? What about bums?”

Oh, God. I was in meltdown. What could I say in that situation? How could I escape this? The seating arrangements meant that it was quite troublesome to leave and I would have to ask people to move. I saw the fire alarm. Maybe, I could throw my orange and hit it. Probably not, as I am allergic to all sports. Best to say something. My sense of humour had left me and packed up and moved to Cyprus, so I was running out of solutions. If I said bum, they’d think I was a pervert. If I said boobs, it would make them think I was constantly looking at their breast. Legs, nah! If I said eyes, people would be sick and vomit and I’d lose my integrity as I sounded like some romantic poet. If I said ankles, I would sound like some sort of Victorian gentleman, and we all know what they were like. Hair would make me sound like a serial killer, so I went for necks.

“Necks,” I said with confidence, thinking I had narrowly avoided a massive social blunder.

Mouths stopped munching fat-free salads. Lips stopped slurping on weightwatcher’s soups. Every eye looked at me. My interrogator continued: “Necks! You like necks.”

“Yeah,” I replied nervously, “I just find them attractive.”

Every female in the group made a subconscious movement with their hands to their necks. They all looked at me as if they had just uncovered a strangler of English teachers. Strangely the whole conversation just died from that moment on.

From that day on, there seemed to be a lot more scarves in the department and everybody shivered when I said I was teaching ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. Suddenly, for one term, there were no visible necks for me to ogle over, and it was the summer.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a male English teacher in possession of free time at lunchtime, must be in want of male company. For this blog, I want to look at the question of gender in the classroom. Does the teaching of boys differ to girls? Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus, but where are students from? To help me, I have enlisted the help of  my dear Twitter friend Gwen, so that this blog doesn’t become full of sexist and misogynistic comments from me saying that women are better teachers than men – see what I did there!

It’s all about texts
I am male. Not really a bloke’s bloke, but I am male. I don’t do football, but I do do geeky stuff and I am mad about science-fiction. As an English teacher, I have free reign about the texts I can teach and the choices I make. However, I always try to make a balance between boy-friendly texts with girl-friendly texts. Someone at the back pipes up: “Good quality literature supersedes gender”. But, I question, whether it really does?

 I had the experience of being taught ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as a teenager and I hated the experience. I like the book now, after my years of studying the novel and all its glories at university, but I hated the experience then. At 16, I would read everything and anything, but this book I couldn’t. The teacher was brilliant, but I loathed every second, minute or hour spent on the book.

Now, ‘Jane Eyre', which I read in conjunction with ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, is a different story. It was a book that really appealed to me. The darkness, the Gothic horror, the harshness of it all had and has me reading and rereading the book to this day. I hated the bonnets, dances and polite conversation of Austen’s world, yet Bronte’s world was far more appealing. Both books written by a woman, but they had varying impact on me.

I once had a friendly disagreement with a colleague about teaching boys about love poetry. If grown men find communicating their emotions difficult, what chance does a teenage boy have with discussing love poetry? A 15 year old me would struggle to talk about love, as I was sat next to a girl in the class, and I also struggled to tell a girl I knew that I fancied her. So, Chris, what is this poet telling us about love?

We have to be intelligent with the texts we pick. By picking boy-friendly texts we risk alienating some of the girls. ‘Jane Eyre’ was great for proving this point as it was both boy and girl friendly. I’ve made mistakes too. I taught ‘Lord of the Flies’ to a predominately female top set and they hated the book. They got it, but they could easily be dismissive as it was just about boys being violent. Look at some of the popular books in departments and you can see that they often have male and female protagonists (‘Skellig’ and ‘Stone Cold’).

Boys will be boys
My initials are CC and at primary school I got the nickname of Class Clown. Like ‘Lord of the Flies’, there is a constant battle for dominance in a classroom. Usually, for boys it is about humour. The person with the Conch is the person who can get the most laughs. As a Year 9, I spent times in Physics lessons laughing my head off. I know, Physics. But, it was how you got liked if your weren’t the best footballer, or clone from the latest boyband. Get a quick, cheap laugh and people like you. People always like the funny one. That’s why in a lesson the lads will look for the innuendo in text or laugh at the silly costume in a video, or laugh at the naked bottoms in the ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ DVD. It is not survival of the strongest. It is survival of the funniest.

Male Pride
Conflicts that occur in the classroom tend to escalate with boys because of, simply, male pride. They cannot bear to lose face. Boys will rarely back down in a conflict situation, if there is an audience. It is the great challenge to authority. They cannot be seen as weak. I remember my own fights and arguments with my own father.

Take the boy away from the audience and they are able to function as a real human being and not an angry-stomping-fighting machine. The best thing in teaching is ‘sleight of hand’. Look at this funny YouTube video of a cat falling over, while you stamp a wasp to death.

Body Language
We tend to assume that girls are advanced in the subtleties of human behaviour and can spot a dirty look from a thousand miles, but boys are astute. A nod or a raised eyebrow can establish a connection that a thousand words can’t begin to achieve. I remember a particularly student, who challenged me constantly when we first met. Finally, he mellowed and then all I had to do was nod my head as he entered the room. He would then nod back, as if this was some sort of accepted greeting. It said that we respected each other. And, he stopped other students from misbehaving. This was all down to a simple greeting of a nod.

In the moment
I tend to be a ‘night before’ kind of person. I can rarely plan ahead. It is ‘all now’ or ‘at the last minute’ with me, and I think a lot of boys are like me. That’s why homework from boys tends to have that look of 'writing on the bus' look about it. Have you done the work for Jones? No. Lean forward Bob and I’ll write it on your back.

Our whole exam system keeps changing depending on whether girls or boys are underperforming. If boys are underperforming, the terminal exams are wheeled out. If girls are underperforming, then coursework is dragged out. Girls understand that things need crafting. Boys know that if they do this think quickly, then they’ll have more time to play football. Oh, and they like the competitiveness of things.

Not all boys are the same
I don’t like football. I am not like most of the male population. Not all boys are loud, out-spoken and confident. There are so many different types of boy in the class that rarely two are the same. These might be some of the types you might see in the class: the quiet but popular boy; the outspoken intelligent boy; the quiet reflective boy. There are loads of them. Each one has subtle differences to the others. I think it is healthy to not tarnish all boys as the same. And, for some lessons, boys will be totally different things. I know of students being quiet as a mouse in English and then become positively boisterous in a Geography lesson.

Now, this is where it gets complicated: the girly bit.

Teaching girls to put makeup on properly
It is with much regret I have to admit to never having been in the awkward position as Chris’s, rather funny and painful, staffroom anecdote. I am embarking (or should I say, trying to survive) my tenth year as an English teacher and in all that time, we females have outnumbered the fellas. English departments do seem to be rather oestrogen heavy and I don’t think it’s a good thing. The rather interesting issues that occur when teaching an ‘all girls’class spill out into the female adults who teach the subject, a desire to be good, but not always KNOWING that you are.

I have been at my school for about three years now (do excuse the vagueness, I started in January, and, oddly my brain finds it hard to work out precisely how long my tenure has been). I have taught both ‘all boys’ and ‘all girls’ groups at KS4, and for all its old fashioned peculiarities, I enjoyed both groups, and learned a huge amount from the process.

Context is everything, I’m an English teacher don’t you know?  

Two years ago, as we embarked on the all new and sparkly WJEC GCSE Language and Literature courses, I was handed a very able group of all girls. In fact, on paper they were the second set, and due to the gendered setting, they were a mixture of a top and second set. The paper work and data said that they were less able than the boys. (Their results told a different story, te he he). Now the management, in their wisdom, also decided that a) we would start the GCSE at the new timetable rollover in June and b) we would teach the outgoing GCSE English Spec in Year 10 b) the new GCSE Language and Literature at the tail end of Year 10 and into 11. Yes, dear reader, three GCSE courses in two years, bonkers no? With the benefit of the post GCSE English fiasco, it now seems a wise move.
 Potential oestrogen focused pit-falls

Girls can be bitchy
Excuse the potential political incorrectness here, but I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a concern when I began teaching this group. I’d taught some of them before in a mixed gender group and as a new teacher at their school, bitchy-ness was their default setting. However, it was just that. Boys can wilfully disrupt as a tactic to ‘put you in your place’, girls use verbal mechanisms, bitchy-ness for the same reason. You will do wonders by modelling warmth and parental qualities here, modelling non-bitchy behaviour for them, so that they can find their own way to that more pleasant place. You will still potentially have a bitchy nut to crack and a fail-safe tactic is to be utterly, relentlessly nice; you can even use terms of endearment like ‘sweetie’ and ‘petal’ and you make it that much harder for them to unleash the bitchy-ness in your direction. As an aside, this is also a useful tactic with your colleagues. You know, the ones who are passive aggressive or just plain aggressive and have all the natural charisma of a bulldog chewing a wasp. Being relentlessly nice to them will wear them down in the end.

Surely, you’ll need a perpetually evolving seating plan?    

The bitchy-ness could potentially lead to fall outs in lessons and a perpetually evolving seating plan. How do you get round this? Use your emotional intelligence. Get to notice and know their friendship groups. Take that into account in your seating plans. In my class, I had the core of the popular alpha females of the year group. When they all sat together, pre-seating plan, I couldn’t get them to work. I had to use the ‘divide and conquer’ rule, while at the same time allowing the well-functioning and productive friendship groups to remain together. Girls place a high value on fairness. Be explicit and state your seating plan is about helping them achieve, not anything personal and they will accept it with good grace.

Id, ego and superego
It is very rare they you will come across a truly egotistical or egocentric girl (or woman for that matter, but crikey, when you do, AVOID, AVOID, AVOID!) if they appear so, it is merely a front to hide a rather more altogether fragile ego. As I said in my introduction, I found my girls wanted to be good at the subject. Many of them already were, but few of them actually knew it. Even the most able student I’ve taught in many a year, did not want to acknowledge precisely how good she really was.
When teaching something totally knew to them, like Spoken Language, or something they are intimidated by such as poetry, an ego massage is required. Remind them what they are already good at. Tell them that they are capable as often as you can ,and, eventually, the ego will listen. Girls are more prone to worrying about getting it wrong; fear of failure can be crippling. Let them fail, safely, comfortably and kindly in your classroom, so that they know how to avoid it in the exam. Park your ego firmly at the door-  work on theirs.

They can see through bells and whistles.
My colleague and I taught ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the same time. The resources I was initially given were based around the RSC drama approach to the text. The boys loved it, lapped it up, but the girls found it hateful. They felt exposed and vulnerable and they were not, by and large, ‘look at me’ drama types. What did they like? Old school didactic chalk and talk. It certainly surprised me and I felt a bit, well, fraudulent resorting to such old school methods. I think, I have a suspicion, that they feel the security of needing to know they are being taught by an expert, and this rather old school method enabled them to see that  once they worked out I wasn’t a fraud, they in turn felt more confident, they became a bit more brave in their own decisions.

Girls can see beyond the end of their nose
From the outset, girls can recognise that they are working towards a future goal. Boys struggle with this very concept, they very much live in the present, they are already pre-programmed to ‘carpe diem’. Why do you need to be aware of this difference? Well, if they already have this intrinsic, internal self-motivation towards a future end goal, beating them with a stick will do you no favours. You MUST recognise their emotional state during times of pressure, you MUST empathise with the pressure they are under and alter your lessons accordingly.

Towards the end of Year 11, they became more and more emotionally and mentally drained by the whole process. My solution? Give them a choice of revision tasks, and a choice of methods to use and get them to work in groups for moral support. Allow them to decide for themselves how best to revise and what to revise. Many, chose to do so at home, often asking for more resources to take with them. Trust them to do the right thing and more often than not, they will.

A final thought
So men are from Mars, women from Venus, boys from Pluto and girls are from Mercury, Saturn and Jupiter. We think that gender in the classroom is a complex aspect of teaching and sometimes gender needs to play a part in an IEP. Oh, look they have got this and that, and also they are a girl.

I have to say, after having taught all boys and all girls groups, I loved the experience of doing both. I found with the boys, and my group were very laddish, that some days it was like watching a sequence from ‘Gorillas in the Mist’. They tweaked each others’ hair gel and at one point, one lad gave another who was the ‘alpha male’ a shoulder massage; my flabber was well and truly gasted I can tell you. The girls were by and large a more co-operative bunch and by that I mean with each other, letting go of, or ignoring their differences for the common good and goals of the class. They are also worry warts and want more reassurance, a mix of giving it, and ‘cruel to be kind’ denying it is needed in order to build up confidence and decision making.

A big thanks to @Gwenelope for her contribution, wise words and help. Please check out her blog at:  

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Of Mice and Men and Pandas?

Breakfast in my house today:

“Dad, that cloud looks like a spaceship!” said one twin, munching her way through a slice of toast.
“Where?” I said bemused.
“Outside. In the sky. That cloud looks like a spaceship.”
“Are you sure? Looks like a face to me.”
“Look, there’s the wing and that’s the top of it,” smiled a marmite covered child.  
“Oh yeah. I see it now.”

In teaching, there are so many different ways that something can be interpreted.  What is an outstanding lesson to one person may be a poor lesson to another individual. I am particularly haunted by my experience of teaching a student in my PGCE year and a difference of interpretations. The child, I was teaching, was the son of a teacher – an English teacher - and he didn't say much in lessons. Anyway, I was teaching a class of A-level students a text for an exam about a play. I worked day and night to do my best , yet this child muttered to the class that his dad had informed him that he wouldn’t have taught the text in the way I was doing. This left me broken. Did I change my ways and try the other teacher's ways? No, because I felt that my way was right for the class I was teaching. He didn’t know the class.

I have heard the phase ‘I wouldn’t do that if I was you’ often in my teaching career when referring to lesson ideas. I am not a ‘crazy’ teacher that has students standing on tables like the ‘Dead Poets Society’ but I have done some things that some people would view as unorthodox.  Once, I brought shadow puppets to one school and performed ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Jabberwocky’ to Year 7. Jabberwocky - that's fine. The Ancient Mariner - are you mad? But, I think that is what is so great about teaching is how we interpret the same things differently. Whereas one person will see a poem as being the perfect excuse for writing another poem, another may see it as an excuse to create a bit of drama.  

It is with this issue that I come to ‘Of Mice and Men’. Even as a type this, somebody somewhere is asking a class to draw a picture of a setting in ‘Of Mice and Men’. Oh, and they are labelling it too. Now, for most English teachers, this is a particular regular task to do with the novel and it is one I shall shortly do as I am currently teaching a Year 10 class John Steinbeck’s book, but I want to know what things other teachers have they done with the text that I haven't done. How have they interpreted the teaching of it? What have they seen about the book that I could try using in my lesson? 

The Internet is brilliant for resources, but I rarely use any of them. That’s not because I am a snob. It is because I am more interested with the ideas than the resources. What have they done differently? How could I adapt that in my teaching of a different text? When planning, I often pool resources off the Internet and then I look and pick ideas. Teaching English is an idiosyncratic thing. I don’t teach in the same way that my neighbouring teacher does or someone else in another school. Try teaching from someone else’s SOW. It isn’t easy. We all have our own style and approach and it is mainly down to our interpretation. I only hope that Ofsted sees this and understands this. I know that my way of teaching something isn’t the only way. It is one way among others and I want Ofsted to embody this notion. We should never have a one way fits all method in teaching, which is what the new EBacc or the Gove  qualification, as I call it, suggests is the way we are going.  

Back to ‘Of Mice and Men’, this is what I usually do with the novel. See if any of it is familiar:

·         Analyse the opening

·         Explore the relationship between George and Lennie by analysing their conversation

·         Write down the different characters introduced in the second chapter and write down notes about how they are presented

·         Write a diary entry from one of the characters

·         Draw the bunkhouse

·         Close analysis of one or two scenes

·         Explore the context by watching BBC context video

·         Rank the characters in terms status and power

·         Some hot seating of key characters

·         Explore the use of themes

·         Compare the ending description of the brush with the opening description

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it is a list to give you an idea of some of the things I usually do.  Last year, I felt that things were a bit flat. The students were enjoying things, but I just felt something was missing, so I decided I’d start messing about and tried being a bit creative. So, what did I do?

Used Props
DSC00229.jpgAs a parent and a teacher that helps organise the school play, I have access to loads of props and toys. Therefore, I decided to use props in the reading of the book. If a student was reading Candy’s lines, they would hold a toy dog as they read the lines said by the character. I managed to find a number of props so each character could have a prop to hold, use or wear. It became a great laugh as students waited for props to be revealed: the items were only revealed when the character was introduced in the novel.

This made the students aware of Steinbeck’s use of objects and symbols in the novel. Plus, it became a great way to establish the different characters visually. All students knew that Lennie carried a mouse and that Slim wore a hat. It also became a fun game as they tried to guess what prop I’d use for the character and they loved the idea of having a something different.

Word of warning: I don’t think this would apply to every book. I can’t imagine ‘Pride and Prejudice’ working with this, unless you have access to fifteen different coloured bonnets. What colour bonnet do you think Jane Bennett should wear?

The Title
This happened by mistake, but a very happy mistake. In the past, I have always looked at the relevance of the title, after reading the novel. However, this year, I decided to look at it when analysing the first description of Lennie and George. I simply said: ‘If the title reflects the character, which character is the mouse?’.  There followed a lengthy conversation about Lennie being a mouse because of his behaviour and George being a mouse because of his size.  

I then carried this on with each character as they were introduced in the book. If George is a mouse, what will Candy be? A tortoise, according to one class. This was because of his age and his inability to do things well and effectively -  unlike others in the ranch. This carried on and I got suggestions for Curley(terrier), Curley’s wife (peacock), Slim (panda), the Boss (lion) and Crooks (a donkey). Some suggestions were hilarious and some were really profound. Some suggestions were strange, but students seemed to love suggesting an animal and offering a symbolic interpretation of the character. The best so far has to be Crooks. One student suggested a donkey for him. Then another piped up and said, “It is because he looks like a horse but he isn’t one and he knows it.” I loved it as the students were doing something that Steinbeck does throughout the book – using animal imagery to create meaning.

This is something I found in book a long time ago, and in another school. It’s complex idea about a character’s personality being represented by circles. The character’s personality is represented by a large circle and all the circles inside it represent different parts of them. Their thoughts. Their fears. Their dreams. The larger the circle, the larger the thing is to their personality. If the circle is near the outside, it can be seen on the outside of the person in their behaviour or body language. If the circle is near the middle, then it will not be seen – it is hidden and secret.

It is quite a hard thing to do as it takes a lot of thought and emotional maturity, but when explored and developed it makes for some interesting conversations. One example I had was about Candy’s worthlessness. Is it something we can see openly? Or, does he keep it secret? This gave one group a 10 minute conversation. Now, that conversation was created by the circles. I wasn’t responsible for that discussion and it would have taken ages to repeat a similar one in class by asking questions. This works, I think, with a particular bright class or a class that is quite happy to be creative.

First hexagons and now circles - whatever next? Diamonds - Oh, done that with diamond ranking! I am running out of new uses for shapes.

Again this idea wasn’t my own, but it created a great task and some interesting discussion. The students created a poem about the brush in the opening chapter by only using words in the first few pages.

Willows, sycamores


Warm twinkling over the yellow sands

It made for one of those fun lessons exploring the choice of language indirectly by selecting and reorganising the text. The students loved it and it produced some interesting results as students changed the emphasis on certain things.

Thanks to @missjillyteach for the suggestion of using  this idea.

A Bit of Dickens
Several years ago, I taught ‘Oliver Twist’ to a group of students before teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’, and, this meant that I often used their knowledge of Dickens as a point of comparison, when exploring the text. Students were able to see how Steinbeck worked hard to create realism and Dickens worked hard to create theatrical and iconic characters. As a result of this, I now compare Steinbeck with a description of a character from a Dickens novel all the time. It makes some great similarities and differences.

Dickens                                                                                                Steinbeck

Characternyms                                                                             Nicknames symbolise character

One or two characteristics exaggerated                                 One unique characteristic  

Written for comedy                                                                    Written for sympathy

Evil characters are obvious                                                        Evil characters are not obvious

Narrator informs reader of character’s                                   No narrator       

thoughts and feelings
I have quickly summarised the general points, but you can see clearly how they differ. The students then discussed why Steinbeck made these choices about the characters.  I found the whole experience fun as it meant that I was expanding students reading and exploring texts rather than just feature spotting.

Treating the Book as a Mystery

See my blog called 'Teaching the Novel'.

A Chart
I started teaching the novel with a big display. It had villain and victim written at the top. As we progressed through the book, I moved a character’s name, based on a student's suggestion, on the display from victim to villain or villain to victim. I found this really useful as it placed the categorising the characters at the middle of the learning. Students were able to see how complex the story was in terms of characterisation. Characters that started as villains became victims and characters that started as villains became victims. It was amazing seeing where the dog ended up on the chart! And some people were in the middle, neither victim or villain.

It didn't look like a spaceship!

I could have looked at that cloud all day long and still not found a spaceship. My daughter saw it and pointed it out for me. I think talking to teachers and other people is so helpful;  it allows us to see the new ways of doing things or new interpretations of the same text. I dare you to post a question or issue on Twitter and see what happens. I did it not so long ago; I needed some poems about the experience of childhood, and within minutes I had some new poems I never heard of and some ideas of how to teach them. Twitter is brilliant for this sort of thing.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. I know you are thinking about Slim being a panda. Crazy, I know. Well, the students thought that he was popular, like pandas, and very strong, like pandas. It wasn't the first animal I would have thought of for Slim. However, it was an interesting one!

Additional Ideas

People have been giving me some new ideas for teaching 'Of Mice and Men'. Here are a few:

  • For chapter four, the teacher pulls items out of a bag that are featured in the room. Students guess what each one suggests about the character of Crooks. Thanks, @hgaldinoshea.
  • This happened by accident, but one person found students comparing Chris Brown and Rhianna with Curley and Curley's wife quite fruitful - it is my starter tomorrow. Thanks, MissJlud.
  • Fran offered this great idea - Which one would you...? Students had to pick the best student for going to a party, for example.
  • Pick some pictures of actors, preferably unknown or not popular actors. Students have to decide the best actor to play a part.
  • There is also the obvious the balloon debate. Which character is the least important?
  • Design the set for the stage play version of the story.
  • Compare a page from OMAM with a page from another Steinbeck book. What are the similarities? Identify his writing style.
  • Rewrite a page from the book and tell it from a first-person perspective. Get inside a character.
  • This I did recently. I am saving the opening a as poem for later, so the first time we read the brush description I got students to rewrite it. I said I wanted them to make it better. They could only change the odd word or add a phrase. We discussed the changes and explored why Steinbeck made his original choices. Great for getting them engaged with the writing from the start.
  • Thanks to @digitaldaisies for this one. As well as using the BBC Learning Zone's video on context, use pictures from: www.­multimedialibrar­y.­com/­framesml/­im13/­im13.­asp

Please let me know of new idea and I will add them to this list.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Something borrowed, something blue, something old and something new

I am busy at the moment. Not just busy, but very busy. In fact, I’m very, very busy, like every other teacher I know. It is that time of year where we are all acclimatising to the new academic year by marking, planning and organising stuff. Oh, and learning names. It seems that after eight years of teaching, I am getting better at remembering names. I don’t have to use my inner Gradgrind: “Child 22, sit down!”.  It is just my own name that I struggle with sometimes, as the face and nature of teaching shifts monumentally, on a daily basis.  Am I still teaching GCSEs? Am I still teaching a linear course? Am I still teaching a set of grade C students?

Anyway, as things are busy I am going to write a much shorter blog than normal. Hopefully, it will still be a bit helpful as I have decided to explain four things I am going to try this term. They are all new things, for me, but they aren’t necessarily new ideas.  

Something Borrowed
I have already dabbled in the dark arts with ‘SOLO Taxonomy’ and have found it very fruitful in my teaching. In particular, the use of hexagons. A great way to build connections and links between aspects of text. I found the hexagons particularly useful when looking at an unseen poem. During one lesson, students wrote down points they found in a poem on hexagons and then spent time looking for connections by simply moving bits of paper about.  It was simply a lesson on serendipity. They found connections that I wouldn’t have normally made with a class.

Last year, I did miss the point about SOLO. I failed to see that it is about the students' understanding of how they learn something. Therefore, this year I have decided that I am going to do it right. A display board is already covered and I am all set to do it with two classes. The principles of it are what most teachers do on a regular basis, but I think, for me, the great thing about it is that students are able to see the stages of the learning process and identify clearly where they are.  

See these websites for more information about SOLO:

Something Blue
This is where I am going to go wrong with my extended metaphor. My something blue isn’t really blue. I can’t think of anything to match up with the title. But, my new thing here is about Ofsted, and, that does send some teachers blue. I have decided, for my new idea, to get two students in a class to perform a mini-Ofsted observation of my lesson.

Now this makes me sound like I am practising to be part of an Ofsted team. I shudder at the thought, dear reader. No, the real reason I want to do this is so that I can reflect on my lessons more and make students see what they are learning and how they are learning (another link to SOLO there).  I am constantly evaluating my lessons, yet I rarely ask the ‘consumer’. I want an extra voice in judging whether a lesson went well, and not a voice that will inform me that I haven’t included the latest buzz word.  Also, the new Ofsted framework suggests that students will be asked about their learning and their experience of lessons.
I am planning to display feedback from students, so that there is evidence that students reflect on the learning process.
Something Old
I am also going to try is some one-to-one reading. In the hazy past, I remember being a spotty Year 12 and sitting with some Year 6s to do some paired reading and listening to Biff and Chip books for hours.  I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It is something that is rarely done in secondary schools, but I think I will try it with a few students.  I have noticed that the fluency of some students’ reading is hampered by their stilted decoding of words. I think if I spent some time over the year listening to them read, I may be able to help them decode words with more ease and help increase their reading fluency.
To do this, I am going to photocopy some interesting pages from novels and get them to read a page. I will then highlight any issues decoding and search for some common patterns.

Something New
Talking is something I am good at. Talking to students about their learning, however, is something I need to work on. I am getting better at it, but I still think I could do it better. Therefore, I have decided to do something that will build and develop the learning conversation with students in lessons.

Each student is going to have a sheet in their exercise book, where they can write things down about their learning. What have they found hard? What do they need to think about? Firstly, this will be a way for me to track their thoughts and idea.  Secondly, this will also get them to think about acting on these thoughts and take more responsibility for their learning.  For example, they might write:

                                I find it difficult to know when to start a new paragraph.

Then, next to it will be a section about their action.
Did they ask a friend?
Did they research it?
Did they ask the teacher for assistance?

In the past, I have always got students to write me a little note after marking, telling me how they think they did and what they need advice on. Hopefully, this sheet will allow that conversation to be a permanent thing and not a sporadic thing, when I remember to do it.

 I know pronounce you...

Dear Reader,

I am married to teaching. Sorry, to go all ‘Jane Eyre’ on you, but teaching can be a bit like a marriage. It changes over time.  Sometimes you need to spice it up a bit by going away or doing something new.

I hope to let you know in the future how it all went. Here’s hoping it doesn’t all end in divorce.

Thanks for reading,




Saturday, 8 September 2012

SEN, Paralympics and Parents

Before I start talking about SEN or the Paralympics, I think I should tell you my story:

In 2008, I became the proud father of identical twin girls. Unfortunately, their birth wasn't simple and without complication. They were born prematurely at 30 weeks. Expectant mothers of twins know that the birth of a set of twins will usually be induced early, about 35 weeks, but they came even earlier.

We were happily decorating the nursery when my wife fell ill. She was suffering from the winter vomiting bug, which started off the contractions. I had it too, but I can't moan. Neither of us was ready.  She was rushed to a hospital and  had an emergency cesarean with much haste and worry. Two tiny pink things made their way into the world only to be stuck into a clear plastic incubator for just under two months. We sat patiently next to the incubators for the whole time, worried and scared.   Luckily, they made it through all this and managed not get any infections or develop any further complications. 

A year later, we noticed that one of them wasn’t crawling. We then had the shattering news from a Doctor Doom that Mya had cerebral palsy and that she may never walk in her life.

‘May’ is the key word in that sentence, because, she does walk. Not perfectly. Not elegantly. Boy, she can walk.  Mainly over my toes.

My experience of being a parent of child with a disability gives me a new perspective on teaching. I think it is only relevant that I talk about it as the of the fantastic, awe-inspiring Paralympics draws to a close.  People have been full of comments about how good the Paralympics has been. Some say it is so emotional because of the journey these people have travelled; others feel it will change how people see people living with a disability. For me, I see it as a start for change.

The Fight
The term for Mya’s cerebral palsy is spastic diplegia. I am not surprised if you don’t know that term, as even Microsoft Word doesn’t recognise it. It means that her legs are affected by the damaged (caused by a lack of oxygen at birth) parts of the brain. She struggles to bend her legs and move as part of her brain doesn’t link properly to that part of the body.  Just as Word struggles to recognise the condition, so too does the rest of society. I cannot believe how much my wife and I have had to fight for our child to be recognised as being disabled by the state. We have had endless form filling, evidence gathering, hearings, meetings, consultations and discussions to get a statement for her.  Don’t think that this is because I am faking her disability; this is the normal procedure, dear reader, for any child with a disability.

You would think that, in this day and age of enlightenment, we would be able to recognise those in need. It took us years to get Mya a statement for primary school; we started as soon as we learnt that she had cerebral palsy. We knew there was a fight from day one. As a result of this, we have fought for equipment, shoes, physiotherapy and support. None of which comes easily and freely. What shocks me the most is that you can clearly have a disability, yet the support you need to cope or rectify things doesn’t come automatically or quickly.

Think of this when you meet a parent of a child with some form of disability or special needs. What has their fight been to get their child to this point? The message our society gives to parents of disabled children is one of fight, or your child suffers and loses out.  I am not militant in my manner, but I want the best for my child, and so far I have had to throw a few punches to get the bare minimum for my daughter.

More than just a disability
Cerebral palsy is a non-progressive condition. It doesn’t get worse, so what we are dealing with now is what we will be dealing with next year. I am more bothered about the social aspect of things. Like most parents, I want her to have friends. I’d be a strange parent if I didn’t, but a disability can come with a social disability too.

I cannot express to you how hard it is to live with the looks and stares.  When I go out with Mya and her walker, I get looks and stares all the time. Now, everybody looks. That is fine. But there is a limit to how long someone should look. I think, a few seconds.  Mya is ignorant of this, as she is too young, but there will be a time when she notices and that day will hurt me because I can’t stop them staring. It’s adults that stare, and of all types. The great thing about children is that they accept differences freely.

Think of this when you meet a parent of a child with some form of disability or special needs.  How do the other children interact with them socially? Could you do anything to build these relationships in the classroom? I have only praise for my daughter’s current school and her nursery school as they did and do everything possible for her. They know, like me, that teaching isn’t just imparting knowledge. It is about creating a sensitive, responsible member of a society.  At Parents’ Evening, the first thing I want to know is if she is interacting well with others and what relationships she has built. Yes, of course I want to know about academic progress, but really, and honestly, I want to know if she will survive in the big world when she is an adult.

In the past, I was incredibly ignorant of this next thing. I assumed, wrongly, that that if you had a disability, it took you a while to get used to it, but eventually you adapted to it and that was it. With cerebral palsy I have discovered that the real consequences of having a disability: the tiredness. The amount of effort it might take an average person is doubled, trebled or even quadrupled for a disabled person. Mya gets tired quickly because it takes more effort and thought to complete a simple action that we take for granted.  What we see as an automatic process for us can be a process that needs considerable thought, effort and a lot of exertion for her.  A simple five minute walk could wipe her out for days. It isn’t just the Paralympians that are superhuman, Mya is, every day.

The tiredness is one of the things that I think teachers should be aware of. Children don’t always know their limits. They push themselves and that is where situations can be dangerous in a classroom. The older they get, the more responsible they can be for this. But, I know that Mya will walk around all day if she could. However, the more tired she gets, the more likely she is to make a mistake. I don’t want to wrap her up in cotton wool, but I try to find ways to limit the accidents she has.

Think of this when you meet a parent of a child with some form of disability or special needs. Do you know the child’s physical limits? Do you know when to stop them?

Mya has support in lessons from a very good teaching assistant, but even at four she knows that this person can do stuff for her and she can relax and be a bit lazy. She’s not daft. As a result of this, I’ve spent the summer holidays telling her to get things herself because she is so used to someone getting things for her. It is basic human nature; I'd not do any marking if I had someone at school to do it all for me. Therefore, just having a T.A. isn’t enough for differentiation.

One person said something at school this week that made differentiation easier for me to understand. They said it wasn’t about making the activity longer or short, but just different. Differentiation even has 'different' in it to help you. Take Mya and PE, for example. More exercise will only tire her out. Less exercise will mean she doesn’t engage fully in the activity and she might get jealous of others or disaffected. A different or slightly related activity means that she will not be disaffected and it means that she isn’t working beyond her capacity. I think this can be easily related to work in the classroom.  

Let’s spell it out: Not more. Not less. Just different.  

Right to the Paralympics:

The fact that the Paralympics is on Channel 4 says a lot about society's views on the disabled, or as I like to call them Superhumans. They are not seen as being 1st class citizens (BBC 1) or 2nd class citizens (BBC2). These Superhumans don't make it on those television channels. They even don't even make it to 3rd class (ITV). Instead, they are on Channel 4, which is a fantastic channel and I love it for just the Superhuman adverts alone, but the whole channel issue gives us the message of how we view the disabled in this world - less than equals. NBC in America are not even showing it! It even happens on BBC News now. Olympics = First Item. Paralympics = Last Item.

I want my daughter to see a society on TV that reflects the real world. I want her to see more disabled actors on TV. I want her to see them in high-profile roles. I want her to see disabled singers in our charts. Because they do exist. I forever hear people talking about Eastenders being realistic, but it isn't for me. For my daughter to see people with cerebral palsy, her reality, on TV, she will have to watch 'My Left Foot' and 'Grange Hill'. Both fabulous.

What the Paralympics has shown the world is that no matter what battles they fight, no matter what looks they get, no matter what risks they face, disabled people can achieve and they are equals. They are more than equal. They are super. They are better than me and they are better than us.

My heroes are not celebrities. My heroes are not people who have saved lives, although they do a fabulous job - feel free to save me one day! My heroes are those living with a disability.

My hero (heroine) is Mya - she fights a daily fight that I never faced as a child, and she is going to win.
Thanks for reading my blog and thanks to Gwen for letting me steal her sentences,



P.S. I don’t want to sound like the ending of a TV show – ‘If you have been affected by events …’- but I am more than happy to talk personally with anybody who is going through a similar experience as I did. At the time  I had nobody else in the same boat as me and I would have really appreciated someone to talk to.